New Zealand needs a new gang strategy – political consensus would be a good start

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By Alexander Gillespie and Claire Breen* of

The conversation

Comment – Concern about gangs and gang-related violence in New Zealand continues to be highly politicized.

Government ministers are under constant media scrutiny and political pressure, with both sides trying to appear more loyal to crime than the other.

The problem is that these debates often lack history, context or vision.

Funeral of a gang of headhunters at St Joseph's Catholic Church in Gray Lynn.

File photo.
Photo: RNZ / John Eden

Every generation intermittently freaks out about crime, especially when it comes to gangs and young people. One of the earliest New Zealand examples dates back to 1842, when 123 male miners who had been transported from Parkhurst Prison in England began roaming the streets of Auckland.

Although a plea from the police chief to ban further deportations was accepted, the country realized it had a problem.

The following years saw the introduction of new legislation, such as that intended to deal with “vagabonds and rogues” (including the particularly troublesome “incorrigibles”). This overlapped with generic laws designed to protect public order and lock up criminals.

The crime did not stop, but it evolved. It was recognized as “organized” in the 1920s, long before the emergence of the first post-war counterculture. But the country was so shocked by the behavior of young people in the 1950s that a committee dedicated to “moral delinquency in children and adolescents” was created. His findings on adolescent sexual morality were posted in homes across the country.

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It wasn’t a huge success. By the end of the 1950s, there were approximately 41 “milkbar cowboy” gangs in Auckland and 17 in Wellington. By the early 1960s, more enduring brands like the Mongrel Mob and a New Zealand chapter of the Hells Angels were beginning to take hold.

Six decades of growing challenge

Since then, politicians have swung left and right, wielding sticks and then carrots to fix the problem. As we examine in our recent book, People, Power, and Law: a New Zealand History, government responses have shifted from the involvement of isolated ministries to multiple overlapping agencies that approach the problem in a strategic and holistic.

There has also been a plethora of legislation. In addition to ever-changing criminal law, there have been laws on everything from fortified houses and the recovery of proceeds of crime, to banning gang patches in public spaces.

While the practicality of many of these laws is debatable, the bottom line is that none have stemmed the tide. Gang membership reached around 2,300 in 1980. It took nearly 35 years to reach just under 4,000 in 2014, but only seven years before the number doubled again to 8,061 in 2021.

Gang members are overrepresented in crime statistics. As of mid-2021, 2,938 incarcerated people were gang-affiliated, about 35% of the prison population.

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In many ways, these people joined gangs for reasons similar to the boys of Parkhurst in the early 1840s: alienation, identity, purpose, respect, friendship, excitement, security, and even economic opportunity.

Drugs and gangs

But today’s gangs are not the same. Their scale, methods and social impact (especially abroad) have changed. They have become mobile transnational corporations representing around 1.5% of global GDP.

The ever-increasing global supply and demand for illegal narcotics is having an impact everywhere. Although the taking of illegal drugs by New Zealand Customs has decreased during the pandemic, the general trend is one of increased seizures and a diversity of overseas suppliers.

Drugs obviously attract gangs. In the first quarter of 2021, methamphetamine, MDMA and cocaine earned an estimated NZ$77 million through illegal distribution.

The prior quarter was even higher, with approximately $8.5 million generated weekly. The estimated 74 tons of cannabis consumed in New Zealand each year could add up to $1.5 billion to the total.

A bipartisan approach

Solving a problem of this magnitude will require a strategic shift away from treating organized crime groups as a partisan political game. It is an intergenerational challenge that should ideally be a cross-party issue.

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One way to do this would be to pass a new framework law that encourages whatever government is in power to systematically focus on the illegal activities of organized groups. It should begin with a detailed examination of what has worked and what has failed legally, socially and culturally.

There should then be an agreed system of political accountability based on known and transparent objectives and indicators. But laws and policies designed to deter and punish criminal activity must also be considered in a broader context.

The law does not exist in a vacuum. The rights of victims of organized crime should be measurably strengthened. And the rights to freedom of association and freedom from discrimination based on group identity must be reconciled.

We also have to accept that gangs won’t just disappear. Spaces for cooperation on shared lawful projects must be found. Helping people leave criminal organizations safely would be another priority.

Perhaps the most critical objective of all will be to slow gang recruitment. Of course, this is a fundamental challenge far beyond any single policy or program – to create an inclusive society where the pathways, opportunities and benefits of being a legal citizen outweigh the alternative.

*Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at the University of Waikato. Claire Breen is a professor of law at the University of Waikato.

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